The Searchers: The Search for Life Beyond Earth

There is life, as elusive as it is in this universe, and then there are those who search for it, real life versions of Roy Neary (“Close Encounters of the Third Kind”), electric lineman, bleary-eyed, not so much obsessed as driven by the compulsion of the unknown.

This idea started to become to me a bogey at recursive intervals, a hagiography of the mind. I pictured the men of SETI gathered like monks around monitors, hypertensive faces swollen with the mute mirth of expectation, in all of them a breathless hope: Roy Neary building a mountain in his living room, dictating revelations of an otherworldly epiphany. Their radio waves flee the Earth into an area without boundary or abyss, non-terminal, a voice lost in the void of infinite space, which seems like the open countenance of an impersonal God or God Himself.

This image of loneliness and desolation, woven into the modern conscious, has inspired the art and thinking of 20th century man, the image of something so implacable and all-consummate and consuming. Intransigent. Definite. Perhaps Final.

It’s a wonder that one may find life at all. And yet the search for other habitable worlds continues, having been recast through the years in different forms. The first extra-solar planet was discovered in 1995, a gas giant, which is like a proverbial demon-haunted world in space, screaming at us in electromagnetic tones beyond our scope.

In June it was announced that one body in a pair of stars thought to be orbiting each other 2.5 million light years away in Andromeda Galaxy might instead be a planet six times bigger than Jupiter; the first extra-galactic planet, if true. Because of the mass of gas giants, they can be detected by the gravitational influence they have on their parent stars, though there exist other methods of detection (the body in Andromeda was found using a process called microlensing, in which a local gravitation field amplifies our view of far away objects). Small, rocky planets would have to wait for the later permutations of scientific innovation.

Now the Kepler telescope, launched in March, a kind of mechanical eye in the sky, affords humanity the unique opportunity to be able to spy upon other worlds without the sort of immediate touch that makes discovery of a new world more like something of a tactile endeavor. When one sees peaceful pictures of Earth from space, it’s hard to imagine all of the activity and noise that might be occurring down below. Even odder, we often view these occurrences as data on graphs beyond our spectrum, instead relying on artists to excite our aesthetic imagination, like how one would extrapolate the wild portrait of a dinosaur from a scrap of bones.

Using high-quality CCDs (charge-coupled devices), endemic to cameras and telescopes like Hubble, and sophisticated analysis of recurring peaks in light curve data, Kepler is charged with monitoring 100,000 stars in our immediate galactic neighborhood, looking for the nearly imperceptible dimming of light (0.01% reduction of magnitude in the case of Earth and our sun) as a planet passes in front of a star (evoking the image in my mind of this scene from the film “Sunshine,” the dark silhouette of a petty patron daring to eclipse the blinding light and enormity of an ancient life-giving god, a minor god in the pantheon of billions of heavenly bodies).

Its eventual goal is to comb the heavens for stars that may contain Earth-like planets; even if they turn out to be elusive, there should still be dozens or hundreds awaiting discovery. Most stars do not have planets, but if our own solar system is any indication, those that do may be dominated by small tribal bodies of asteroids and moons and rocky planets, though Earths, obviously, would be few in number.

Identification will only be attained after three transits around the star, so the wait could last for more than three years, and because most planets will not enter Kepler’s line of sight, the true number of orbital planets may need to be estimated.

All of this is merely a presage to the task of actually imaging these planets and getting a full spectrum of their atmosphere, which might give us a clue as to their partial composition and the probability of the ingredients throughout the galaxy for life as we know it. There are many such missions; both planned and scrapped (the life of a space mission even in its infant stages is quite precarious).

One of them is a European Space Agency spacecraft, a flotilla aptly called Darwin that is to be placed 1.5 million kilometers away in the opposite direction of the sun, that will use infrared signals to detect the spectrum of light emitted from the kinds of gases that would make life possible; such imaging from the ground would normally be blocked by Earth’s atmosphere. As Darwin awaits deployment no earlier than 2016, we are reminded exactly what it is to look without seeing, unable to conceive of the innumerable paces between us and our objectives.

And just as the sheer size of the universe seems more expansive than any one mind can contain, so too does the epoch of man seem but a somber blink of cosmic time. We are wanderers of an endless desert, lost in the wilderness of ages too long to comprehend. Finding life might be all about timing: even if evolution remains a constant throughout the universe, life elsewhere might be millions of years underdeveloped, not intelligent enough to make contact with, or millions of years beyond us, in which case they might have become something else entirely. The cosmic rules of the road seem to be a quirk of circumstance. The hopes of discovering a relatable civilization might be dim.

Then again, if comparable life exists in this galaxy, perhaps they too have spied our planet from afar like the searchers on our own world, evoking the image of a discoverer as one who trespasses the border between something great and terrifying and whose passions allow them to go much further, taking us with them.